The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
A piece of paradise for beat & bite
Tongue Twister
Sands, Sega dancers, mixed music sounds and exotic food... Musician and foodie NONDON BAGCHI relives his recent trip to Mauritius

In 1998, if I remember correctly, The Atrium Cafe at The Park hosted a Mauritian food festival. Food and music and dance, really, because along with the chefs came a troupe of Sega dancers and their accompanying musicians ' colourful, vibrant, exuding a sense of fun and abandon and celebrating life.

The food had a distinct character to it. Salads rich with tropical fruits, seafood preparations with a Mediterranean approach and meat and vegetable curries with an Indian touch.

It was the first time I had Smoked Marlin (a kind of sword fish). Thin slices of pink flesh, just like ham slices to look at, and even to taste, though more subtle and very succulent. The festival gave us a glimpse of a rich and varied culture and somewhere a mental note was made that this must be a happening destination.

Eight years later and one-and-a-half levels below, guests of the hotel from a large corporate company visit Someplace Else, hear the music of Hip Pocket, and like it enough to invite the band to play at their annual conference in Mauritius.

The flight lands at 11.30 am local time, this small jewel in the Indian Ocean ringed by white sands and surrounded by turquoise-blue seas, the island itself covered by the lush green colours of the tropics interspersed by jagged ridges of ancient volcanic rock.

We board a bus to get to the hotel; soon there is a brief halt, our guide announces that three beautiful young ladies are going to welcome all of us (conference delegates and band) to Mauritius.

'Just a welcome, okay' he jokes, as three lissome lasses board the bus with garlands, laughter bubbling through their welcome, confident and comfortable with their beauty, unselfconscious, and just as quickly disappear into their car with 'Bye!' and 'Enjoy your stay'.

Our guide tells us that Mauritius was colonised first by the Dutch, then the French and then the British. Seventy per cent of the population is of Indian origin (this emigration happened during British rule), the other main ethnic groups being African and European.

The official language is English, though most people speak French, or rather Creole, the local adaptation. Creole is also a term used to identify the ethnic group whose roots belong in Africa.

Bhojpuri, Urdu and Hindi are also spoken and there is a small group of Chinese islanders as well.

There are Hindus, Muslims, Roman Catholics and other Christians; the cuisine is a reflection of this amazing melting point, out of which will come biryanis and curries, Peking duck and sweet and sour pork, bacon and eggs, French dishes including venison and wild boar, Creole ragouilles and exotic tropical fruits. We are beginning to get the picture'

At the hotel we are welcomed by Sega dancers, going for it oblivious of their five-star surroundings. A simple, hypnotic, rhythm sustained by two Ravanes (large, thin drums with goatskin heads, but now replaced by synthetic skins) held vertically and played like tamburines, one Maravine (a pebble-filled box which makes a rattling sound when shaken) and a triangle. Lusty singing, celebration time.

Lunch is a huge buffet. I try to identify things Mauritian (Creole, or local adaptations of French cuisine) and try first salads involving avocados, and another with pineapples, papaya and grapes with hunks of bread and garlic butter.

There is some Grilled Red Tuna Steak. At first glance they could be chicken or turkey laid out over the charcoals, but they are delicious tuna fish steaks, charred in places to give it that right barbecued feel. A choice of many accompaniments, be they sauces or greens.

'Any Marlin' I ask the chef. 'No,' he says, 'but I promise you some at dinner.' True to his word, at dinner on the silver sands under the bejewelled skies, there is Smoked Marlin, after eight long years' There is a Couscous, a North African cereal, Stir Fried Beef, Lebanese Kebab and much more. Plenty of Indian and tandoori as well, but that can wait till we are back home.

Next day I ask the guest relations lady to recommend a good restaurant for Creole food. She says, 'Le Capitaine, at Grand Bay'. This is a small town at the edge of a bay, pretty boats anchored in calm waters, Le Capitaine looking out over them.

I order Octopus Salad. The octopus is cooked in salt water and allowed to cool after being drained. It is then cut into bite-sized pieces. A dressing with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is made and the octopus, chopped chillies, onions and bell peppers are added. The salad is served with Crushed Chillies (a fiery sauce made with their local, pale green chillies about twice the size of jalapeno) and bread with garlic butter. Octopus is not as rubbery as squid and to my mind has more character in its taste.

Next up is Beef with Creole Sauce. The meat is marinated with salt and pepper and kept aside. In a wok, crushed garlic, chopped ginger and onions are sauteed in oil and then a generous amount of tomatoes and red chillies are added. The dish is covered while the contents simmer. Then the meat is added, with hot water and the dish cooks till the meat is tender.

Accompaniments were a dry shrimp preparation like a Balichow, a salad with juliennes of cabbage and palm heart and a pulao with raisins and peanuts. This hit the spot.

No time for dessert. I was getting late for sound check. (almost forgot why I was in Mauritius!). Performance and party in the evening and out next day at the crack of dawn. Back home many hours later, I find Le Capitaine Restaurant on the net and recipes of the food I ate.

For a foodie and musician, Mauritius is paradise. In every corner and outlet of the hotel there was live music and you could hear anything from local sounds to Charlie Parker to Sade to Stevie Wonder. If I have sounded like a tourist brochure, at least I am in good company, for after a sojourn in Mauritius, Mark Twain is supposed to have said, 'God made Mauritius first, and then the heavens'.

Email This Page